9 Apr 2008 Live from UNIMA 2008: Review of Puppet Sports
Puppet Sports takes the concept of improv games and applies it to puppetry, with great success. Brought over here by some Canadian puppeteers, this season was its Australian premiere.
Let’s start with the venue. At the Perth Concert Hall, they’ve set up a rather large marquee on the back balcony. With about 100 seats, tonight it was half full; however, the audience was energetic and young. The stage is simple: a rostra, stage left flanked by a keyboard; either side of the stage a set of chairs; stage right, a small desk for the umpire. Onstage, there is a table covered in black cloth at the front, and either side of upstage is a table, which has piled on it a range of puppets.
Lighting was simple, just some front open white wash, which the lighting operator had the good sense to dim at relevant points in the improv. Sound was fantastic: there was a guy on keyboard, who improvised accompanying music to the scenes, and a special guest on didgeridoo. The didgeridoo made the music I think, because it gave the whole show a sort of eerie, ethereal, and earthy quality, and both the musicians worked perfectly together. It was an Australian take on jazz, and I have to give a big thumbs up, because I found myself often completely forgetting that the music was even there, and yet was totally engrossed in the emotion and atmosphere they provided to a scene.
Anyway, to the actual show. The premise is this: two teams of four battle out to be the best puppet improvisers. In a wonderfully satirical take on Canadian sports, each team gets numbered jerseys, the umpire is in zebra stripes, and choosing who goes first is done by the toss of a large two-sided puck. Points can be both awarded and taken away for not following rules. In order to facilitate voting, audience members were given a white piece of card (white team) and a blue card (for the blue team), or in some cases, a two-sided glove puppet; and you hold up your colour preference for your vote.
The teams consisted of two members from the Canadian presenters, and two outside members gathered from the puppeteers attending the festival. Although it’s all improvised, the participants do get together an hour before the show to meet and be introduced to all the rules and the set up. Included in the performers was Gary Friedman, to my delight, as I discovered he is excellent at this type of performance, as well as being hilariously funny and capable of doing a lot of different character voices.
Puppets and objects are laid out, and the performers grab what they need when they need it. It isn’t limited to any particular type of puppet; there were small rod/bunraku style puppets, muppet-types, suitcases, pieces of coloured cloth… etc.
I won’t go through all of the games, but will give you some examples and highlights. Game two was ‘Babel Tower’, whereby the group – both teams on stage at once – had to speak only one language at a time. This was hilarious, since the Canadians spoke both English and French, there was a bit of German, and something else that I can’t remember. The scene was on quarantine, and there were a bunch of animals being told by an inspector to get into a box and be sprayed in order to come into Australia. (Ok, so improv is pretty much ‘you had to be there’… so most of it won’t sound funny, but I can tell you it was)
Game three was hide and seek, which was a beautifully melancholic and comedic hunt by one puppet for another. Game five was on the theme ‘on the other side of the window’, and Team Blue did a great bit on a window cleaner – one of the puppeteers acting as the cleaner – watching two puppets make out through a window. Game six was a combined effort at ‘Super-size’, where they took ordinary life – a man getting up and going to work – and super-sized it. This was great fun, as the objects and puppets got bigger, with smaller ones being exchanged for larger ones, as well as the puppeteers making accompanying dialogue/sound louder or larger. Game eleven was ‘The Return of King Foo’, where people are waiting for the return of the king. Though this might sound rather boring, the set up meant that it was played normally, with puppets, at first; then it was played operatically; and lastly played underwater. You can just imagine how that turned out! Hilarious! (Blue Team won by the way)
What amazed me was the sheer simplicity of the puppeteers; they seemed to mostly work in silence, with the occasional whispered instruction with one another to get a prop, or move a puppet a certain way. But for the most part, these thrown-together groups didn’t communicate, and when they were working three puppeteers to a puppet, the manipulation was smooth, connected, and it seemed, emotionally correlated to the look and feel of the puppet. The more melancholic puppets were operated with sadness and slowness, while the more lively looking ones were performed with more energy. The puppeteers instantaneously picked up the emotion of the puppet, and infused that into their scenes. This kind of characterisation is tough for any actor during improv, and to see it done with puppets is extraordinary in itself.
My biggest problem with the show was the sight-lines. I tried to sit at the back (of the audience, but not of the seating itself), and to the side, because I knew I would be taking notes, and didn’t want to distract anybody by my constant scribbling. This made things awkward, as sometimes I really couldn’t see much of what was going on. This is a minor detail, since improvisation by nature doesn’t allow for sight-lines.
It occurred to me during the show that the voting is very hard to do. Sometimes I would vote as to who best encapsulated a theme; sometimes it was who made me laugh, or surprised me; sometimes it was pure personal preference; sometimes it was about the manipulation of the puppets, and who came up with the best concept; once I didn’t vote at all, not particularly liking either team’s scene.
The voting was also confusing at times, because for some scenes, the teams performed on stage together, and with eight people – all in black jerseys, but with different coloured lettering – it was hard to tell who belonged to which team. Especially as quite often one person from one team helped another person from the other team to operate a puppet; how do you vote for a team, when they’re still helping each other?
But this is really minor. Though I would say the show wasn’t electric enough to be really
outstanding, the fantastic music, the excellent skills and minds of the puppeteers, and the mere concept of this show, makes it a winner. Yes, some bits failed, but any improv show is like that. What makes this one particularly fun is that the range of puppets and objects allows for a lot of different ideas to be created from one concept; and it extends the flexibility that the performers have in being inventive. This simple performance can be produced anywhere in the world, by any puppetry group, and be great fun. It’s hard to put a rating on this, since it’s entirely dependent on the games played, the participants, the audience, and of course, the minds of the puppeteers.
However, my vote: (4 UNIMA stars out of 5)
Tomorrow, a masterclass with Neville Tranter, a keynote speech, and yet another show! UPDATE: Read next day’s post here.